The Bible is a collection of books and letters recording the history of persons and people of God, and others apart from God. It is a gift from our Creator that teaches us His ways of how to have a relationship with our own mind and body, with other Godly or ungodly people, and with God Himself. So the Bible is an owners manual for how to be a person.
Consider the idea of a parent who knows they are going to die but has time to prepare a journal to give to their young child. At first the child sees it as just a souvenir to remember their lost parent. As they read it over time they learn that their parent is teaching them how to live a successful life. The child is bonding to the book as a representation of the parent they cannot see face to face, so they love the book and want to spend time with it. They don’t try to find excuses to only see it but not read it. The value and love it represents isn’t in the cover, it is in the contents. This is how followers of Christ should think of the Bible.
However a person cannot understand the Bible without God’s help with interpreting it. Every person has a natural bias from their sin nature that causes them to want to see the interpretation that appeals to them instead of God’s intention, and no person can always overcome that bias. Also the original revelations from God to the authors of the books (the “God Breathed” version) were recorded in their native language with all of it’s word and phrase definitions and the cultural understanding of the times. All translations from the original, whether by a devoted individual or by careful consideration of a body of peers, are not inerrant and will have flaws for the following reasons:
1) A direct textual translation of the Bible is not possible partly because some languages have specific words for different types of something (for example Godly or brotherly love), and others rely on context to differ the type (fear could be fright from facing an adversary or reverence -maybe even terror- facing the Creator).
2) Grammar, sentence structure, parts of speech etc. are so different in different languages that an attempt at direct translation will be too confusing to understand.
3) The letters that make up the Bible were originally copied by hand by people specially trained to be precise, but no person is perfect. Occasionally an error can be made, then every copy made from that copy will have the error. If a corrupted version is carried to a new region, then all people learning from it will have a false idea of what the original version meant. For example, in Luke 2:14 there are references to “good will” and “men”. The oldest and most complete copies found so far use the Greek word “eudokias” for “good will”, but somewhere along the way a copy was made (that led to many other copies) that used “eudokia” instead. It still means “good will”, but in a different form that requires changing the sentence structure around to make sense. So in English, some versions use “good will to men” because they are based on the corrupted “eudokia” version, and others use “to men of good will”, from the likely original and intended version “eudokias”. The error changed the meaning of the verse significantly enough that more recent translations have replaced the phrase with something like “…on whom His favor rests” or “…with whom He is pleased”, to emphasize the original “eudokias” meaning.
4) Some words in one language don’t have an equivalent word in another language. The word may describe an entire concept that was never identified as a cultural need to have in the translated language. The Hebrew word “avon” refers to the entire three part concept of iniquity (willful sin), leading to conviction from God who knows the intent of the heart so no debate to find the truth is needed (1 Sam. 16:7), which causes a required punishment. Once begun, there are no options to alter the outcome, it is automatic. This is part of what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:28 when He said that committing adultery in your heart is the same as physically doing it. He allows for a temptation that is quickly dismissed, but intentionally indulging in the lustful thought (the start of iniquity) confers the same guilt as physically doing it (James 1:15). People that live in countries with more “modern” beliefs reject the idea of “avon” (so they never developed a word for it) because they believe there is always the chance for deliberation to help avoid or reduce the charge, so guilt is never automatic and penalties can also be waived or reduced. The word “shama” can mean to just listen attentively (to “heed”) without any particular response, but usually means to hear AND then obey without considering options because the source has undeniable authority. For example if a police officer gives an order, the first meaning suggests the hearer has the freedom of choice to hear but not obey the command, but the second, proper, meaning understands the need to obey the command without thinking about choices. People in free countries think they always have choices, so they don’t want a single word that combines heed and obey.
5) Different cultures have different values and understand ideas differently so a direct literal translation doesn’t make sense (different manners and customs) or carry the complete meaning. The English word “peace” means absence of strife or anxiety, but the people God was writing about used “shalom”, which also includes a sense of wholeness a person can only feel when they have a relationship with God.
6) Over time the popular meaning of words or phrases in the translated language can change or become less significant so someone reading can misinterpret the original intent of the translator (look for other letters in this collection or learn the formal and archaic definitions of words like faith, believe, integrity, hope, good, lord, pride, humility, desire, church etc.).
Dynamic equivalence and paraphrased translations try to adjust for all these literal translation problems but require vast understanding of both of the languages and cultures and will always be subjective so they can be misleading. So the only way to gain truth from Bible study is to have God’s Spirit lead the reader into the meaning God wants for them at that moment. This is true for unsaved people that are exploring possibilities about God and Christians with His indwelling Spirit trying to understand Him better.
This also means that any translation of the Bible can be useful, because any person with a Spirit led eye to see or an ear to hear can gain some truth from it and will not be misled by any errors in it. Simpler and paraphrased versions are good for basic ideas and for lighter reading as recreation for disciples spending time outside of deeper study. A disciple in study will want to compare passages from different translations to overcome any weakness or omission found in some versions, or to resolve conflicts between them.
A disciple (student trying to gain greater discipline) will also read the same passage repeatedly over time and continue to gain deeper insight from it as God determines to provide new levels of knowledge. So with His Spirit’s guidance the Bible is a preschool primer and most advanced degree reference.
For example, in the parables about a person finding a great treasure worth selling everything to obtain (Mat 13:44-46), new Christians may see themselves as the person who found Jesus and His Kingdom of Heaven and realized their value (like Paul describes his relationship in Phil 3:7-11). But as they develop their understanding of a Christ who loves them they start to lose their sense of self as the focus for their relationship with Him. Then they can learn that the person is Jesus, who values the people who make it into His Kingdom as the treasure He is willing to sacrificing Himself for. This helps them begin to understand what love really is.
Also consider the very short section of the book of Genesis about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The basic lesson is about the cost of ignoring God’s good advice and doing something selfish instead. Reading the passage repeatedly over time causes a disciple to start wondering why God created a serpent being that could communicate with Adam and Eve, why God allowed the serpent to enter the Garden, why God made the forbidden fruit seem so attractive, and why didn’t God warn Adam and Eve more specifically about the techniques the serpent would use to deceive them (first the serpent acts confused and appeals to Eve for help with understanding God’s rule, then the serpent quickly switches to attacking God’s motives and appealing to Eve’s imagination about the usefulness of the fruit and her curiosity about how God thinks and does things). A disciple eventually begins to understand that God wanted Adam and Eve to enjoy their innocence with Him in the Garden which included being ignorant about how evil operates, but He also wanted to create beings with the free will to choose to love or reject Him. This means there has to be an appealing temptation to make a bad choice, or there would be no actual free will. God made the rule about the forbidden fruit very clear, and in fact required the serpent to make Eve remember and speak the rule to the serpent right before she chose to break it. So God was fair with Adam and Eve, ultimately the lesson is about the serious responsibility of how we use our free will, and what happens when we decide to not be accountable to our relationship with God and instead choose to make decisions that appeal to our carnal nature.
Bible believers will sometimes refer to the Bible incorrectly because it seems to fit with Christian values well, even though it may be a misinterpretation of the context that the verse is part of. As long as God’s Spirit is leading the person into this understanding, it is acceptable for a time, but a disciple will always be willing to reassess their interpretation as they gain more knowledge and wisdom from God.
For example, Revelation 3:20 (NIV) says “Here I (Jesus) am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” This verse is commonly used as an evangelizing tool that suggests Jesus is knocking on every person’s door and hoping they will answer. Younger believers see that this has happened for them, so they use it to attract unbelievers to Christianity. But the context of the verses around it show a deeper lesson for the believer to learn that may be a humbling experience for them. The section (3:14-20) is actually a warning to “lukewarm” Christians that do not take their relationship with God seriously enough, which He considers an offense against Him. Jesus is telling those believers that they are putting more faith (trust) in what they have accumulated instead of living with and learning from God, so He wants to rebuke and discipline those members IF they are willing to repent and heed his call to a closer relationship with Him. Since God wants us to use the free will He gave us to choose Him, perhaps a better verse to witness with would be this quote from Jesus: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” Matthew 7:7-8 (RSV). This verse makes it clear that the person is responsible for using their free will to want to find and choose God. In this verse the person does the knocking because they choose to. In Rev 3:20 Jesus is doing the knocking because He wants to warn misguided believers.
Another example of this is Ephesians 4:26. The NIV and other translations say “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”. The NASB and others say “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”. On it’s own this verse is used to teach that people should not let the emotion of anger cause them to behave poorly, and they should resolve all disputes the same day so they don’t cause greater problems. This is fine advice but the context of the entire chapter suggests a different interpretation that may also be a warning for Christians with more casual (lukewarm?) attitudes. This chapter is about the importance of Christians uniting together and watching out for each other. They should think like God teaches (be light) and share His truths with neighbors (in this case other people in church) that are still or have returned to living in darkness like the lost (see Hebrews 3:12-13 and Matthew 18:15-20). So they should be angry at what they have observed (“BE angry but do not sin”) and this is the closest to righteous anger people can feel at how futility and darkness can harm fellow believers and must be overcome. The “don’t let the sun go down on” part means keep the righteous anger alive and keep sharing light in the darkness, don’t give up on it after a short effort. A lukewarm believer may become upset at the injustice victims suffer or misconceptions some people are guided by, but choose to believe something like “oh well, live and let live, what can I do, it’s none of my business, they’re adults, they know what they are doing”, then try to forget the uncomfortable feeling they experienced about it. This can cause division in local churches by allowing false beliefs and teachers to prosper, and damages the reputation of Christianity to the lost it is trying to reach. The “do not sin” part is emphasized at the end of the chapter where forgiveness and sharing this light in a gentle way is how to avoid sinning in anger (as in Galatians 6:1, also see 1 Thessalonians 5:4–11). In Leviticus 24:10-16 God showed that protecting the unity in His family was so important to Him that the community was responsible for eliminating any blasphemer that may cause dissension or division within it. Later in Joshua chapter 7 God allowed some of His people to die in battle because an unrelated member disobeyed God’s command to avoid taking plunder from a previous battle. Again the result was God making His children remove the member (and his children!) to protect His family. The difference this time was that other family members had to die first because no one reported the disobedience in time, the way the blasphemer was reported earlier.
Similar to the idea of misinterpretation is the issue of adding ideas to the Bible that are not in the text but seem to offer Christian understanding of what God is actually teaching. For example, in Acts 8:26-39 Philip is directed by a messenger of God to approach a high official in a Ethiopian kingdom and witness to him. The official was at least friendly to the idea of worshiping the Hebrew God and was reading the letter from Isaiah when Philip found him. After Philip educates him on the prophecy about Jesus that Isaiah was describing, he eagerly desires a water baptism to become attached to Christ. Some people approach this lesson from the official’s perspective, that a little knowledge of Christ and choosing to be baptized leads to a life and eternity with Him. This certainly can be true, but there are no verses here that describe what happens to this official when he returns to his high ranking position at home and must face his peers and leaders with his newfound beliefs. He may have merely experienced an epiphany about Christianity but when confronted with the possibility of losing his position or even his life for going against the religious beliefs of his people he may have proven to be like the stony or thorny ground hearts in the parable of the sower (Matthew chapter 13). The real lesson is Philip’s unwavering response to clear direction from God about who to share the truth of Christianity with, and how God prepares the hearts of those who will accept that truth. A person deciding on their own who to witness to and then lovingly badgers the person into “believing” does not understand that God calls the people He wants, and we are merely the messengers that find and lead those people to Him (Jn 6:44, 2Tim 1:9, Acts 2:38-39, 2Thess 2:13-14). In Luke 14:16-24 Jesus shows that God accepts the rejection of those who spurn His offer, but He makes it clear they will not partake of any benefits that were part of the offer.
Another example is in Genesis chapter six where God tells Noah to build an ark to save his family and the different animal species from His impending destruction of the world. Frequently people will describe the event to include discussions between Noah and his neighbors about what is going to happen, so that the people will have a last chance to repent. The idea is that God is fair (which is true, but by His standards of fairness, not ours), and since the people reject Noah’s warning, it is fair for God to destroy them with a flood. The problem is there are no actual verses in the text about God telling Noah to be a prophet (like He did with Jonah) or any specific statements from Noah to his neighbors about what is going to happen to them. The text clearly states that God knew the hearts of the people and that they would never accept Him as their God, so no guidance or debate was necessary (see “avon” above to understand why some people want to envision a last-chance entreaty from God here that did not occur).
Occasionally a believer may hear someone say that the Bible is full of contradictions which proves it was written by men and cannot be trusted as proof that there is a Creator that wants to have a relationship with us. These people are scoffers, finding ways to mock the Bible as a way of rejecting any attempts from God to challenge their lifestyle and belief system. Christians should always be ready with proper interpretations of the Bible verses that scoffers may attempt to use as evidence of their claim. For example there are various Old and New Testament verses about how children should honor and obey their parents. But Jesus said He came to divide families, which seems to create a contradiction. The truth is those verses are directed at the children of parents that are attempting to live Godly lives and pass those values down to their descendants for their benefit and to keep the Church alive. When Jesus said He would divide families, He is referring to the people that reject the unGodly way their parents were raising them so they could become part of the Body of Christ. Certainly God would not tell every Pharaoh’s or Pharisee’s child that Christianity is forbidden for them, they are doomed to obey their corrupted parent’s instruction on how to live.
A common example of this today, even in loving families, is the idea of believing in santa at Christmas. Many children learn from their parents that santa has the good stuff and wants to share it with the “good” children that avoid the “naughty” list. But the naughty list is either just for other people or even if the child gets on it, santa will tear the list up because it’s Christmas, a time for forgiving and sharing (really the parents just don’t want to deal with tantrums from the child losing their presents and put off or forget the discipline issues that caused the naughty list). Unfortunately this causes a misconception in the child about how a spiritual being like God operates that the child will struggle with later. God is always ready to forgive BUT He will not tear up the “naughty list” just out of compassion, so He would not want His children to learn these false lessons from their parents (every child must eventually decide for themselves to choose a relationship with their Creator on their Creator’s terms, whether their parents have taught it to them correctly or not).
Since translated versions and hand-written copies are not the original “God-breathed” form, there can even be contradictions between them, and only one interpretation can be correct. Spirit led study of multiple versions can develop a definition in the disciple that leads to a correct understanding as a composite of the versions but with the error removed.
For example, Hebrews 6:4-6 is about people who receive a genuine Spirit led glimpse of the meaning of following Christ. It means more than just receiving a clear lesson about what Christianity is. The “taste” it refers to is a sort of epiphany about who God and His Spirit are, an awakening of the person’s spirit. The feeling would be similar to the event of Elizabeth and Mary meeting before their children were born (Luke 1:41-44). John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb when he recognized the pre-born Messiah Jesus inside of Mary. Verse 6:6 warns that a person rejecting that truth after accepting and at least sort of believing in it will be rejected by God forever, there is no future chance to repent and try again. There is dispute about this because some translations include the word “If” in 6:6 and imply that the person was a saved, Spirit-indwelled believer who somehow fell away and lost their salvation. But it seems this would not be possible because God’s Spirit living in them would prevent them from committing the unforgivable sin of blasphemy of His Spirit (Matthew 12:31–32 and Mark 3:28–30)(God understands when His children throw an occasional temper tantrum about Him, so that is not the same as willful blasphemy). Ephesians 1:13-14 clearly states that the indwelling Spirit a “believer” obtains is a permanent seal, a guarantee that the promise of eternity with Jesus in Heaven will occur for that person. This would make the interpretation that a person can lose their salvation a nonsensical waste of attention to an impossible hypothetical. Versions that do not include “If” seem to be referring to different types of people described in the parable of the sower about how they treat the revelations (“seeds”) God shares with them (Matthew chapter 13). Some peoples’ soil (their character) receives the seed of truth as an epiphany of understanding with joy but the stony ground prevents it’s growth (understanding of God does sprout but dies before maturing when challenged because their character is not deep enough to allow good root development), or the sprout starts to grow but is choked and starved by thorns (the baggage already developed in their character and temptations they struggle to let go of) so the epiphany withers in them before the sprout can produce fruit. After the sprout dies there is no second seed for those people to try again with. In the same parable as told by Luke in 8:15 Jesus describes the good soil that can produce fruit as a person with a “good” heart. In the Bible “good” usually means “Godly”, and various translations add words like just, noble, honest, virtuous, upright etc. It is most likely that the sharing or partaking of the Spirit described in Heb 6:4-6 can be lost by people whose understanding of “belief” required by Eph 1:13-14 is not firm or deep or “good” enough to withstand the challenges of the rocky or thorny soil. The real definition of believing in something leads to living by those beliefs because the person understands how critically true and important they are. In John 14:15-17 Jesus states that people who love and believe in Him enough to obey His commandments (live by His teachings) will receive this permanently indwelling Spirit helper (their “soil” is good for developing fruit). As a quick aside also consider the part of the parable where the farmer wastes some of His seed by throwing it on the roadside where it has no chance of sprouting. This is a picture of how fair God is, He gives all people a chance to learn who He is, even when He already knows He will be rejected by those with hearts so stubborn the seeds have no usable soil to even start with.
Another example is Matthew 16:13-18, which is about Jesus commending Peter for knowing that Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus also says in the same passage that Peter knows this because it was revealed to him by God. Jesus concludes by saying that on “this” (either “rock”, or “Peter” which means petros which means stone or pebble) He will build His church (“petra”, meaning boulder or rocky collection). Some interpretations say that “this” means Peter, so Jesus is picking a person to lead the church after He has ascended, the first pope, the New Testament version of Moses, the human spiritual guide with the power and authority from God to lead His chosen people. Others say “this” means that Peter, being a person with Spiritual understanding from God, is one of many “rocks” or saints, part of the Elect, in God’s big “rocky collection”, the Body of Christ, His Church, not the chosen leader. Both interpretations cannot be correct, one leads to a Catholic understanding of Christianity and the “Church”, the other to a Protestant one. The Catholic definition of the “Church” focuses on the hierarchical nature of all the authority figures from the pope on down to the priest leading the congregation. The Protestant definition of the “Church” is focused on members with an indwelling Holy Spirit that have given themselves to serving Christ and assume various roles of supporting each other (Gal 6:10). Allowing for both interpretations is one of the chief causes of the original divisions (schisms) of the Church (different regions did not want to serve a single pope from another city). In v15 Jesus asks the GROUP of disciples (not focusing on Peter) who they thought He was, Peter was just the most assertive member so he answered first. Peter himself even later said in 1Peter 2:4-10 that the saints are living stones with Jesus as the cornerstone (not Peter or a pope), and that we approach God directly through Him, with no mention of any human “chain of command”.